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November 15, 2018

By targeting SNAP, the expanded “public charge” rule could worsen food insecurity

November 15, 2018

Food insecurity is a widely acknowledged public health challenge. So it’s deeply concerning that the administration’s proposed expansion of the “public charge” rule targets the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the primary federal nutrition program that helps millions of low-income people and families put food on the table each month.

Several studies demonstrate that SNAP reduces food insecurity. And a recent study examining the experience of people who lived in counties where SNAP—previously known as the Food Stamp Program—was first rolled out shows that those with access to these benefits had better health outcomes later in life, including lower rates of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.  

Under current law, public charge determinations are made when a noncitizen applies for a temporary visa to enter the United States or to become a lawful permanent resident (or “green card holder”). Immigration officials consider whether the applicant could become primarily dependent on the government for support by looking at their use of cash assistance or long-term institutionalized care. 

But under the proposed rule, open for public comment until December 10, immigration officials would also consider applicants’ recent and potential use of noncash benefits, including SNAP and Medicaid, which help individuals and families meet their basic needs.

Specifically, if an applicant has received SNAP benefits over a 12-month period with the total value of the benefits exceeding 15 percent of the federal poverty level, this fact will be weighed as a negative factor in their application. The applicant could be deemed a public charge and denied admission to the US. This 15 percent threshold would count any benefits above $1,821 for a one-person household, for example, if the benefits had been received in 2018.  

Under current law, access to SNAP is already limited among noncitizens. Lawful permanent residents older than 18 in the United States generally aren’t allowed to receive federal SNAP benefits until they’ve had a green card for at least five years and meet all other eligibility criteria. Those who are not “lawfully present” cannot receive federally funded SNAP benefits.

But if the proposed rule went into effect as drafted, we might expect fewer eligible families with lawfully present noncitizen members to participate in SNAP benefits for two reasons. 

First, it would directly penalize people applying for green cards if they have received SNAP benefits beyond the threshold identified in the rule. Second, through confusion and anxiety sowed by the administrative complexity and a hostile immigration environment, the rule could reduce participation in any safety net program, even among people not directly affected by the rule.   

This “chilling effect” could lead noncitizen parents to refuse to enroll or to disenroll citizen or noncitizen children from programs, even though a child’s benefit use is not supposed to be considered in a parent’s public charge determination.

In fact, chilling effects have already been observed. Long before the public charge rule was published October 10, there were anecdotal reports of immigrant families dropping out of nutrition assistance programs.

And a new preliminary study finds that immigrant families’ participation suddenly dropped in the first half of 2018 after steadily increasing from 2007 to 2017. Researchers found that in 2017, 43 percent of eligible immigrant families who had been in the US for less than five years were participating in SNAP. By mid-2018, participation among these families dropped to 34.8 percent, a decline that researchers attributed to fears of potential repercussions for receiving food assistance since eligibility rules remained unchanged from 2017 to 2018.   

The scope of citizen children with noncitizen parents who may be affected is large. In 2016, more than 1.3 million households included citizen children participating in SNAP living with noncitizen parents, even though their noncitizen parents were not enrolled in SNAP themselves.

Evidence shows that food insecurity is detrimental to health and well-being at every stage in life. Any effort to reduce access to federal nutrition programs through expansion of the public charge rule to include noncash programs such as SNAP will likely increase food insecurity and associated health risks that could negatively affect people over their entire lives. The proposed rule makes little sense for a country that already has worse health outcomes than virtually every other high-income economy in the world. 

Photo by Yellowj/Shutterstock

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